In the short course of about 18 months, Android has gone from an upstart operating system on a single handset to one of the fastest growing mobile operating systems around to one that's increasingly being used beyond the handset on new devices like slates, smartbooks and now televisions. As fellow Engadget columnist Michael Gartenberg pointed out last week, the idea of putting the web on a TV has been with us for well over a decade with little acceptance.
But the content and role of the web has changed dramatically since Sony and Philips launched their first devices based on WebTV's platform. As I mentioned last week, the web has become home for a growing family of mainstream sites upon which we've grown increasingly dependent. It's also become an outpost for both first-run and long-tail video. And the progress of standards such as CSS has improved the display of web sites across browsers and devices. HDTV has quadrupled the resolution of televisions and enabled flicker-free display of text. While few consumers directly connect their PCs to their TVs, several of the former sport HDMI connections, and many of the latter sport VGA connections.
And as the web and TV are different animals than the ones WebTV devices sought to tame in 1996, Google TV is a different animal trainer than WebTV Networks was. Whereas WebTV sought to build a device that would democratize the web, offering access to technophobes intimidated or frustrated by PCs, Google TV is aimed at a PC-literate audience that already has broadband and perhaps even an iPhone or Android handset. It also forgoes the unappealing subscription fees that are still required by what is now MSN TV 2.
Google TV is aimed at a PC-literate audience that already has broadband and perhaps even an iPhone or Android handset.
Ultimately, though, even all this won't be enough to distinguish Google TV, which will need to leverage the Android developer community in two ways. In the column Tabula Rasa, I discussed about how third-party developers would go a long way toward defining the success of the iPad, but at least iPad developers had somewhat of a model in terms of iPhone apps. Here, there are few successful precedents. Similarly, Google TV challenges developers to create compelling native applications for TV. As TiVo and Windows Media Center have shown, it is difficult to create compelling television apps beyond DVR and possibly place-shifting. Google TV has minimal interaction with the video stream, and as Steve Jobs noted this week in his D8 interview, the closed system of the set-top makes it difficult for third parties to enhance the video experience, at least on screen.
And that's the second way Android developers have an opportunity to leverage Google TV -- not as an island in the middle of a television or Blu-ray player, but as part of an family of products that includes mobile phones and a suite of services. Google TV can pump out content, ancillary information and interactivity around the television experience to companion products. The strength of this federated system can make Google TV less like Microsoft's moribund MSN TV and more like Xbox Live, a vibrant mix of content, community, that's part of an increasingly influential and powerful alternative ecosystem.
Ross Rubin is executive director of industry analysis for consumer technology at market research and analysis firm The NPD Group. Views expressed in Switched On are his own.